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At question: Can a religious-themed theme park use state-controlled economic development resources?
A Kentucky theme park that is set to include a 510-foot-long Noah’s Ark installation should not be denied access to a state sales tax incentive program, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
Excluding the biblically-themed project’s developers, Answers in Genesis, from participating in the program is a violation of the group’s First Amendment rights, Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, wrote in his opinion.
Answers in Genesis is a Christian ministry group, and says it’s “dedicated to enabling Christians to defend their faith and to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.”
Kentucky officials initially showed support for the ark project, and the state’s tourism cabinet approved the incentives for the developers. But the state later backtracked over concerns that the theme park would “advance religion,” and that providing the incentives would run counter to constitutional protections that prohibit the state establishment of religion.
The incentive program allows for tourist attractions with development costs of $1 million and up to recoup 25 percent of those expenses, over a 10-year time period, through sales tax rebates. It is available under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act, and has been extended to other tourist attractions in the state, including an aquarium, an auto raceway and whiskey distilleries.
The first phase of the ark project is expected to cost around $92 million.
In late 2010, Answers in Genesis and then-Gov. Steve Beshear held a joint press conference to publicly announce the project.
At that event, leaders from the ministry stated their intention for the tourist attraction “to lend credence to the biblical account of the Flood and Noah’s Ark,” and also to include “a Gospel message,” according to information in the court opinion.
After the project hit delays, the state asked the developers to re-submit their application for the tax incentives. They did so in March 2014. It was around this time the project hit a roadblock gaining access to the incentives program. In a letter, the general counsel for the state’s Department of Travel and Tourism raised concerns that extending the incentives to the project would amount “to impermissible state funding of religious indoctrination.”
Answers in Genesis, along with two subsidiaries, filed the lawsuit that led to Monday’s ruling last February. The named defendants included Kentucky’s tourism secretary and governor.
“I rejoice in the court’s decision today,” said Answers in Genesis president, Ken Ham, in a statement on Monday. “The state gave us no choice but to bring this legal action.”
“The law is crystal clear that the state cannot discriminate against a Christian group simply because of its viewpoint, but that is precisely what happened here,” Ham added.
Located in Williamstown, Kentucky, the planned theme park is dubbed “Ark Encounter” and, according to Answers in Genesis, is scheduled to open on July 7.
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.
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